Obama will have to seek consensus solutions

The White House thought it was acting in the people's interests, and that the people just didn't realize it. That attitude won't work now.

President Obama takes reporters' questions the day after the mid-term election.

President Obama takes reporters' questions the day after the mid-term election. Pete Souza/White House photo

"For the people, against the people." — Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey.

As chance would have it, former Sen. Slade Gorton and I provided the entertainment at Wednesday's Seattle Downtown Rotary meeting with a post-mortem of the Tuesday election results. Somewhat to our mutual surprise, we had almost identical analyses, although from different vantage points. (Both Gorton and I were once known as avid partisans, by the way, but now seem to have met at a moderate, unpartisan crossroads).

The Republican gains in the U.S. House of Representatives were historic. I made the additional point that gains of over 60 seats were particularly impressive since redistricting and gerrymandering in recent years had made many House seats "safe" for incumbents and non-competitive.

We agreed on the following points:

  • Republican gains at state and local level also were impressive and will have an important effect next year when post-2010-census redistricting takes place.
  • The GOP gains were not an endorsement of the Republican Party or of GOP policies.  Rather, they were triggered by public dissatisfaction about a continuing weak economy and what amounted to severe Democratic overreach with the stimulus package, health-sector remake, and interventions in the banking, housing, and auto sectors. They also flowed from public alarm about federal deficits and rising public debt.
  • President Obama and congressional leaders of both parties should seek ways immediately to take common action on extension of the Bush tax cuts and to use recommendations of a Social Security/Medicare commission to jointly reduce spending levels in those two expensive entitlement programs. I suggested, additionally, that Obama should take the initiative to add tort reform provisions and to authorize selling of health insurance across state lines (both probably acceptable to a majority of Democrats) as adds-on to his 2010-passed health-care plan, thus offering a positive olive branch to Republicans.
  • The national electoral map has returned to where it was in 2000. That is, Democrats have political control of coastal blue states. Republicans control the red states in-between.

I made the case that, whether conscious of it or not, the Obama White House had too greatly adopted Kemal Ataturk's attitude that it was acting "for the people, against the people." That is, it was doing things to benefit the American people that it believed the people themselves were too benighted or stupid to recognize as in their interest. The prime example: Jamming through a one-party-drafted health care scheme, which a clear majority of the American people opposed.

Earlier in the day, Obama had presided at a day-after press conference in the White House. I had expected him to begin by saying: "The people have spoken. I say to the people: I hear you and have gotten your message." But, instead, he made clear that he placed principal blame for Democratic losses on the continuing slack economy. His recovery measures, he said, had not had time to work satisfactorily. He bridled at suggestions that the losses amounted to a rejection of his agenda of the past two years.

The president, however, will have no option but to seek consensus, bipartisan solutions to national problems from this point forward. Republicans now possess sufficient congressional power to block any proposal he makes unilaterally. Obama's situation now is not unlike that of President Bill Clinton following the Republican takeover of the House in the 1994 elections.  

Personal observations after Tuesday's Democratic losses:

  • I regret the defeat of several senior congressional Democrats, including Sen. Russ Feingold and several key committee chairs, Reps. Jack Spratt, Ike Skelton, and Jim Oberstar, who deserved better after long public service. Sen. Blanche Lincoln also went down, in large part because of the labor movement's destructive attempt to purge her in the Arkansas Democratic primary. In Arizona, where I spend part of my time, I was dismayed by the defeats of Reps. Anne Kirkpatrick and Harry Mitchell, two intelligent, constructive Democrats who were unseated by far less qualified first-time Republican candidates.
  • I also regret that Sen. Harry Reid and current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi apparently will continue in 2011 as the public face and voice of congressional Democrats. Pelosi has not yet made her intentions known about 2011. Most prior speakers, after having sustained such losses, have simply retired from Congress. Others have continued to serve as ordinary Members. Only a handful returned to serve as leaders of their now-minority caucuses. Pelosi, though, would never cede leadership to her deputy, Rep. Steny Hoyer, a longstanding rival. Moreover, the heaviest losses Tuesday among congressional Democrats were among moderate, so-called Blue Dogs from marginal districts. Those remaining are for the most part liberals who have been Pelosi loyalists all along. So the odds strongly favor her re-election as House Democratic leader next January.
  • The Obama White House and Cabinet will get more shaking up, although the quality of the replacement team remains a big question. Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is returning to Chiago to run for mayor. Counselor David Axelrod is returning to Chicago to begin organizing Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. On the financial-economic side, White House economic czar Larry Summers and Obama's original Council of Economic Advisors chair and Office of Managment and Budget director also have departed.  Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is rumored exiting early in 2011. Defense Secretary Bob Gates, perhaps the ablest member of the Obama Cabinet, has announced he, too, will depart in 2011. Obama's national security advisor, Gen. Jim Jones, already has departed and been replaced by a capital political operator who formerly lobbied for Fannie Mae.  A member of the Rotary Club audience Wednesday noted the almost complete absence in the administration of appointees with business or practical economic experience. I agreed with him that this omission should be corrected pronto.
  • Foreign policy issues, not important in Tuesday's elections, will become increasingly important in 2011. The interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are supposed to wind down next year. But will those countries be stable by then? If they are not stable, will Obama undertake a withdrawal anyway — in the knowledge that neither country involves vital American interests?
  • The Tea Party movement, so important in Tuesday's elections, brought energy and voter turnout to Republican candidates. On the other hand, Tea Party-backed Republican Senate nominees in Connecticut, Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado ran so erratically in those states that Democrats held seats they otherwise likely would have lost to moderate, mainstream Republicans beaten in GOP primaries by Tea Partiers. I expect the movement and its agenda, as with prior such movements, to become subsumed within the two major parties in 2011 and not be a 2012 factor.

Will a Democratic rival challenge Obama for the 2012 presidential nomination? It is far too soon to tell. If, by late 2011, the president's approval ratings are down, the economy remains flat, and the country is perplexed by foreign interventions and offshore issues, a 2012 challenger likely will emerge. In a more favorable political climate, however, Obama could rally just as Bill Clinton rallied during 1995 and positioned himself for re-election in 1996.

Ted Van Dyk has been involved in, and written about, national policy and politics since 1961. His memoir of public life, Heroes, Hacks and Fools, was published by University of Washington Press. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 7:17 a.m. Inappropriate

What is truly vexing is that Obama acts like a liberal Republican. His healthcare is to the right of Nixon. Many of the Democratic Party’s programs are to the right of Republicans of earlier years. As a voter I hold my nose at their policies.

I liken it to the idea of an arsonist setting fire to your house; do you help him by throwing more gas on the fire? That is the feeling I get from many democrats I associate with. As a wage slave, I have been left behind by both political parties: Republicans of save the wealthy and damn the working class along with Democrats of save whatever is popular today and damn the working class.

When the working class finally gets fed up, and I fear it will happen sooner than later, we will see a violent revolution ala the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution. Think of the Bonus Army in the early 30’s. MacArthur machine gunned his fellow citizens in view of the Washington Monument. This time, I don’t think the government will succeed, our government will fall and anarchy will ensue for many years. Of course I have thoughts like this because I study history, and, the trite statement, “history does repeat itself” holds truth for me.

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 8:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Obama tried consensus. Obama tried compromise. All it did was get him burned. The Republicans would work out a deal in committee and then not vote for the bill when it went to the floor. Why do you think they will behave any differently this time around?

Republicans seem to think that consensus and compromise are when they get their way. That isn't consensus or compromise. It is bullying.

Rhonwyn

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

If Obama goes this route, he's done for. You can see it in how badly the blue dog Democrats fared. If democrats wanted a Republican they'd have voted Republican. As a Lefty I'm disgusted with the democrats. They held all the reins of power and voted in Republican laws.

As for "over reaching" on banks, actually the reverse is true. Those banksters deserve incitements and from my view, jail time. In this last election the youth which put Obama in the Whitehouse didn't bother to vote. Who can blame them? They were promised change and what they got was more Bush Pres. Policies.

Ted face it, you're not "non-partisan" you're a centrist Republican. That's ok, but's not what I'm voting for when I vote Democrat.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 10:45 a.m. Inappropriate

"The president, however, will have no option but to seek consensus, bipartisan solutions to national problems from this point forward."

On this forget it. The only thing Obama is going to be doing is fending off investigations by the House designed to make him look bad. We are finally going to see the metal in the man. If he grows a spine, we'll know whether he deserves another chance in 2012. Otherwise the Democratic party is going to challenge him in the primaries and the Republican dream of him being a one term president will become true.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 11:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Van Dyk,
I like to read fact-based commentary, not fantasy.

I stopped at your statement "Jamming through a one-party-drafted health care scheme, which a clear majority of the American people opposed."

1. The majority of the US population was not against Obama-care.
2. One more vote than the other party in a legislative context is policy. (Quote Churchill on that one.)

I am starting to really value the commenters here on Crosscut.

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 11:51 a.m. Inappropriate

TVD needs to learn more about substantive policy in health care, financial regulation, economic stimulus, etc. before issuing grand statements about what’s wrong with President Obama’s and the Democrats’ policies. But it’s perfectly clear he’s not interested in doing so.
Selling health insurance across state lines will only result in allowing insurers to get away with selling shoddy coverage that doesn’t protect consumers. We’ve seen lots of that in the individual and small group markets, and that’s exactly what health care reform was designed to prevent. That absolutely won’t be acceptable to a majority of Democrats. Plus, capping medical malpractice damages, which is what Republicans want, has not controlled health care costs in California, Texas, Florida, or other states where caps already exist. If the Republicans want to come to the table and agree to genuine reforms that both protect patients from poor care and protect doctors from unfounded lawsuits, then there’s something to talk about.
TVD advocates boosting the budget deficit by nearly $700 billion or so by giving wealthy people a Bush tax cut extension, then advocates paying for that by cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits for older people with modest resources. That’s a recipe for greater social misery and income inequality, as well as for completely alienating the Democratic base. Obama would do that at great peril.
Other commenters have already noted how wrong TVD is in his persistent assertions that the American people oppose the health care law. Polls consistently show the public closely divided on the overall bill. But when asked about the major provisions, such as ending preexisting condition exclusions and denials, they strongly support them. The exception is the mandate to buy coverage. There many people don’t understand what every health care expert knows – that all the popular provisions depend on everyone being in the insurance risk pool. I recommend that TVD read some back issues of the journal Health Affairs and bone up on the fundamentals of health care policy.

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 12:16 p.m. Inappropriate

"it was doing things to benefit the American people that it believed the people themselves were too benighted or stupid to recognize as in their interest."

Now how about talking about the AIG payoff of 100% on the dollar the CDC's owed to Goldman Sach's? Ted, to do you really think that the people were too stupid do realize that this was a payback that a former member of Goldman Sach's was doing with taxpayer money? Instead of negotiating a better deal for taxpayers, as otherwise those CDC's would have been worth ZERO dollars. Perhaps saving Goldman Sach's was worth it, but then the taxpayer should then have owned it, or at least some of it via stock to be sold at a later date.

It's this kind of backroom deal that sours anyone looking at the Obama Administration and thinking that they are looking out for "the people". Unless by "the people" you mean "Wall Street banksters."

Or if you want to ignore the banking problems, what about the Gay & Lesbians serving in the Military? Clearly they are there, and it hasn't hurt our military readiness, or battle's won/lost one bit. It's past time to end this charade, and the polls even done within the Military show it.

Or are "the people" too stupid to realize that an openly gay/lesbian military would ruin it?

What about closing Gitmo? Are "the people" too stupid to realize that by putting these guys in front of actual courts, or putting them in a POW camp would harm the USA? Or are we merely trying to protect those who tortured these guys by preventing them from testifying in open court about their treatment? Last time I looked "the people" think that waterboarding is a mid-evil torture. And that a person tortured will eventually say anything to get it to stop, thus making anything they say worthless. I think "the people" need to hear what has been done in their name and decide whether to firmly say, "no more" whether or not we prosecute those who ordered the torture as war criminals.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 12:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the comments. I fear that some of the commenters remain in denial about what happened Tuesday.

Over many decades, no major systemic or policy change has been successful if not undertaken on a bipartisan basis. In the early 1960s, major civil-rights and social legislation was passed which its sponsors would never have attempted on a one-party basis---and never if they possessed only a one-vote margin in Senate or House. President Johnson, and his Vice President (and my boss) Hubert Humphrey, went out of their way to get GOP spnosorship for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Even though they possessed a huge electoral mandate, and a huge congressional majority, after their
1964 victory over Barry Goldwater, they undertook historic 1965 Great Society legislation only after securing bipartisan sponsorship for the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, federal to education, and the other Great Society proposals. They pre-sold the proposals to business and other groups which otherwise might have opposed them. Senator Ted Kennedy, over a long and productive Senate career, always began his legislative initiatives by securing co-sponsorship by senior Republicans. He worked closely with President GW Bush to enact No Child Left Behind and Medicare prescription-drug-benefit legislation. On something so sweeping as a health-sector remake, it was reckless to draft and pass legislation on a one-party basis. Contrary to at least one comment, above,
survey data showed a majority of Americans to be opposed to the health plan during its debate, its passage, and after its passage. Data displayed Tuesday night showed more than 55 percent of voters still opposed to it.

Beyond the content of the health legislation, there was the matter of process. While the country still was stuck in financial/economic crisis, the Obama White House shifted the agenda----for one full year---to the legislative struggle over the health plan.

There was a national election Tuesday but no Presidential candidates on the ballot. Thus the people who paid for this overreach were incumbent congressional Democrats, many having served effectively over many terms. Republicans now control the House and have sufficient Senate votes to
effectively block any legislation they oppose. Unless Obama, and congressional leaders of both parties, make extraordinary efforts to cooperate and reach bipartisan solutions, the public agenda will be gridlocked over the next two years. Is this the outcome some of the commenters desired?

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 1:03 p.m. Inappropriate

This Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll is consistent with many other recent polls on the health care reform law -- public opinion is closely divided, many people don't know what's in the law, and many provisions of the law are very popular, such as ending preexisting condition exclusions (which even Republican leaders say they support, though they don't acknowledge that repealing the mandate would gut this popular provision). And guess why the public is confused? Because so many lies and inaccurate statements have been made about the law by Republicans, special interest groups, and blow-hard commentators.

http://healthreform.kff.org/scan/2010/september/kff-september-tracking-poll-looks-at-health-reform-and-the-elections.aspx

More generally, polls have shown that voters were very mixed in what they want going forward. There was no clear mandate policywise from them. So it's presumptuous for TVD to say we're in denial about the election results -- because no one really knows what those results mean or what the voters want. And I'll predict that if TVD and the Republicans think the election results mean voters want the Social Security eligibility age raised to 70 and the Medicare eligibility age raised to 69 1/2, as incoming House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan proposes, I think they're going to be in for a shock.

One last point. I've repeatedly shown that LBJ and the Democrats had little or no Republican support in sponsoring Medicare in 1964. Reagan and other Republicans staunchly opposed it as "socialism." It was only when the train was leaving the station, and Republicans realized how popular the program would likely be, that some jumped on board late in the process and voted aye. But there's no way any honest observer could call Medicare a bipartisan initiative.
http://politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2009/aug/28/howard-dean/dean-claims-social-security-and-medicare-were-pass/

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 1:14 p.m. Inappropriate

On health care:

Ted, what did the compromises that the Democrats did give them in the end? No votes by the Republicans at all. They might as well have created a system that would reduce costs by going to a single payer system for all the good the compromises did. In fact the compromises almost guarantee that the system we now have is unsustainable. The tax penalties for not joining aren't high enough. You can wait until you have something serious, then the insurance companies have to take you, then file for compensation. This will eventually bankrupt the insurance companies. Most analysts give it 10 years before this thing is toast.

Let say the Democrats did pass a single payer system, then they could have run on a 40 page law that said "Everybody in, nobody out." Read it yourself. No death panels, no hidden fees, no hidden exclusions. What they have now is a 3,000 page law that nobody except an insurance wonk knows what's in it, but all of the rest of us are sure that the crooks in the insurance industry have slipped in some special exclusions that means when we really need care, we'll have to rely on tax payer funded care or nothing.

Compromise on something as basic as a principle of "health care is a right" just didn't pay off when the compromise was with the industry that is ripping us all off now.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 1:41 p.m. Inappropriate

If you are asking me would I prefer Republican solutions or gridlock, then my answer is that I would prefer gridlock.

If the price I must pay for any substantive legislation is extension of the Bush tax cuts, then the price is too dear.

quiller

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 2:02 p.m. Inappropriate

One final thought on Tuesday night's aftermath. It will affect more than
legislative outcomes at federal level (President Obama, earlier today, announced he was abandoning an attempt toward cap™ legislation, for instance). It also has affected the political balance of power outside the capital. Republicans gained control of governorships and state legislatures Tuesday. And, even in true-blue states such as Washington, where they remain in the minority, they added appreciably to their numbers in the legislature. Also as noted, the overall national electoral map now has reverted to its 2000 model. The "historic realignment" that many thought possible after President Obama's 2008 election now threatens to be a realignment in the other direction. In 2012, more than twice as many Democratic Senate seats will be at stake as Republican ones. Unless the political climate changes, Republicans will get the Senate majority two years from now that they missed Tuesday night.

Actions do have consequences and we felt them Tuesday.

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 2:17 p.m. Inappropriate

I suggest that TVD and others read Peter Orszag's excellent op-ed today explaining the many ways that the health care reform law will reduce the growth of health care spending and cut the long-term budget deficit in a balanced and responsible way:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/04/opinion/04orszag.html

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 2:42 p.m. Inappropriate

TVD Wrote:
"Unless the political climate changes, Republicans will get the Senate majority two years from now that they missed Tuesday night."

That statement is unsupported and pure speculation, TVD. I think any political discussion of an election cycle to be conducted two years from now is frivilous at best. Not only does it pretty much equate to baseball's "hotstove" league, but I think it particularly shallow when we have races in Washington state whose winners have yet to be confirmed.

Bella

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 4 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with Bella, it's too early to predict the demise of the Progressives in 2012, or even the Democrats.

Once the new House is seated, and the "investigations" designed to embarrass President Obama start, we'll know. If he grows a spine and stands up the bullying there is a very good chance he'll get a second chance. Americans like a person who has principles, can speak clearly about them, and stands by them while being attacked for them. We saw Obama do this on his speech addressing racism in the USA. So we know he can muster a spine. The question is will he again? Or is he like Senator Kerry, who distinguished himself in battle in Vietnam, and yet let a deserter who stayed home defending Texas call him a wimp and traitor without response. That alone let the voters know the kind of man inside the candidate. President Obama is young, and smart, can he rise to the occasion?

When the lawyers who represent the bond holders for those fraudulently sold mortgage backed securities win in court forcing the banks to buy them back, and effectively bankrupting them. That financial crisis will give President Obama to show us whose side he's on. Wall Street, or the rest of us.

There are a lot of things that are boiling along under the covers that in the next two years could erupt into a major crisis. All of these things will let us know the measure of the man and that of the Republicans in the house. Failure to execute will mean loss at the polls for those deemed responsible.

As for Washington State's Senator challenge, Marie Cantwell is a centrist Democrat. That plays pretty well in Eastern Washington and Western Washington. With Dino Rossi gone from the scene will Rob Mckenna take up that challenge or try for the Governership. There aren't any other Republicans who have his kind of support. If I were him, I'd go for the governorship as it's unlikely Gregoire is going to run again, thus making it an easier race than against an incumbent. Whether he'd win either race after showing his true colors with the lawsuit over health care is another story.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 4:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks to Harris Meyer for the Orzag piece reference. It succinctly explains why the health care reform law puts us on the road to cost containment at the same time it expands coverage and denies insurance companies the ability to discrimate for purposes of profit. What I find appalling is that Republicans leaders can call the law a "monstrosity", as Boehner did today, when it provides health care to 30 million more Americans. This is something deeply selfish and should be troubling for principled Republicans.

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 5:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Orzag's piece misses the elephant in the room. The processing of the bills. The current health care bill leaves all those insurance companies in the position of evaluating coverage, and whether or not a doctor can perform it or not. Plus it leaves the high paying CEO's jobs in place. None of which would be necessary in a Single payer system.

It reads like a "please please please don't trash my health care bill" op ed than actual journalism.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 7:19 p.m. Inappropriate

For the time being the electoral map has returned to its 2000 model but that doesn't mean it will stay there. The 2001 redistricting was intended to make that map permanent. A motivated Democratic electorate changed it in 2006 and changed it even more in 2008.

There were more Republican controlled state houses in 2001 than in 2011 and I'm sure there will be an attempt to "fix" the map through redistricting. There is no guarantee that a motivated electorate won't change the map again in two years time.

BTW how much the Republicans added to their numbers in Olympia remains undecided as late-counted votes tend more Democratic in every western county.

quiller

Posted Thu, Nov 4, 9:36 p.m. Inappropriate

How do you possibly get consensus with a group of Republican leaders who have consistently said they will not compromise on anything with the president? It's not much of a stretch to imagine that they will spend two years trying to make the president look bad, with an eye to 2012. Meanwhile, the kind of Congress Mr. van Dyk keeps imagining, like the one he once worked with, no longer exists. Bipartisanship for Republicans means "let's do it our way."

T.M. Sell

Posted Sat, Nov 6, 1:57 p.m. Inappropriate

I was at the event where Mr. Van Dyke, purported to speak for the Democrat's viewpoint -- not even close -- he trashed the President and was much more condescending and dismissive that his written reprise above. I certainly agree with his statement that he is no longer a partisan Democrat. Having him opposite Sen. Gorton was like pairing a Rottweiler with a stray lap dog.

suz

Posted Mon, Nov 8, 10:03 p.m. Inappropriate

The Republicans of old, the Bob Dole/Howard Baker era, this would be possible. Today's Republicans do not, by and large, compromise, it's their way or the highway. Take the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. No compromise, they say. If the President capitulates, he loses. If he holds fast, the American people - and probably the economy - lose. Either way, he's ousted in 2012. Today's Rs don't care if nothing happens for two more years. It will get them the rest of the power they're officially lacking: the U.S. Senate and the presidency. Then, they can resume something akin to what they started when handed a surplus and all branches of government in 2000: wars, tax cuts, unfunded new programs, and Supreme Court decisions that now allow a candidate to say whatever they want and to get anonymous donations to the ying-yang, the effects of which (from the just-completed campaigns) we're just getting over.

bricsa

Posted Sat, Nov 13, 10:15 p.m. Inappropriate

I surprised most of you haven't moved to Canada given the results of the last election. This nation has survived far worse things, yea of little faith and knowledge.

Djinn

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